Cities As Frameworks
Milan-Based architects Space Caviar’s Non-Extractive Architecture program explores the possibilities of designing without depletion. After a summer creating structures for sustainability-focused festival Terraforma, they discuss permanence, adaptation, and evolution.
Words: Morna Fraser
Images: Gianluca Normanno
Morna Fraser: How receptive do you feel that the architecture world is to non-extractive methods?
Joseph Grima: I think that there’s a huge amount of interest in the idea of resetting some core architectural principles, and thinking about it at a macroscopic, really a planetary scale. But it’s something that’s going to require a lot of patience. In a way, the real goal of this project is to bring the people working on these ideas together, to allow them to have a greater level of influence. It is to enact a shift from a generation of architects whose primary concern was the appearance of the building, something we care about marginally, to a generation who understands the importance for beauty, but who are willing to take into consideration a much more expansive set of requirements.
MF: From workshops and exhibitions at planetariums, to documentary films and structures at Terraforma festival, your projects have taken many forms. What is specifically interesting about the festival space that lets you do something different than say, a biennale?
JG: Terraforma is very special because they have this keen awareness about some of the values that are important to us: design, a relationship with the environment, the importance of architecture, and creating a human experience that’s rewarding. We were very motivated to work with them and this wouldn’t have been possible with many other festivals. That being said, in this moment where there’s a rule that dictates everything – every possible application, especially in the architectural space – the temporary nature of festivals allow you to suspend that a little. They’re good testing sites, both in terms of design and aesthetics, but also in terms of these ideas of paying a lot of attention to supply chains and sourcing raw materials. The Biennale of course is important, but I think sometimes biennales tend to speak to a crowd that’s too specifically architectural. The great thing about the festival is that it welcomes people from all sorts of different backgrounds.
MF: How was the Vaia Stage designed and constructed?
JG: The structure is a celebration of Milanese design – the hexagonal form at the front is derived from one of the most iconic buildings in Milan, the Pirelli Tower by Gio Ponte. The trusses are the second homage to Milan, inspired by Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione? project. We wanted it to be an exemplary project of a simple building in which we know everything there is to know about it, so it is a single material structure made out of pinewood. The only other material we used is laser cut steel for structural support. We wanted to enter into a dialogue with the origin place of this material, so we worked with local consortiums dealing with the enormous amount of wood left over from storm Vaia in 2018, which felled hundreds of thousands of trees, leaving them to rot on the side of a mountain. As architects, we want to engage with the production process and understand how the materials work, so we turned it into a workshop, collaborating with a number of volunteers including people from Terraforma as well as our own staff. It was a wonderful process. Part of the idea of non-extractive architecture is that money isn’t the only thing that one can get out of one’s work. There are also forms of conviviality, of human exchange that are just as important.
MF: What are your thoughts on architecture’s traditional obsession with permanence?
JG: We think it is a very problematic one, but there’s a lot of misunderstandings around the value of permanence. The idea that buildings are not adaptive is very dangerous, because it leads to a lot of needless consumption of materials and energy, in continually demolishing and rebuilding. If we could think of our cities and buildings more as frameworks, like in the way bees inhabit a hive, where they’re continually adapting it to the needs and the conditions onsite, that would be much more appropriate. So not to think about permanence versus impermanence as a dichotomy, but to think about adaptation and evolution.
MF: If longer lasting materials like concrete stop being used in favor of organic materials such as wood, should we expect a more transient approach to architecture in the future?
JG: There’s a myth of concrete as this super permanent material. We’re coming to a moment in history where a lot of buildings that were built during the booming age of concrete in the 20th century are now in need of some serious maintenance. The Ponte Morandi bridge in Genoa that collapsed in 2018 is an example of this. Concrete is a material that is long lasting under very specific conditions and with a lot of maintenance. Almost any material can be close to everlasting, if maintained properly. If we begin to think about the consequences of using concrete – it’s not so permanent, releases lots of CO2, and causes a depletion of sand riverbeds – it becomes clear that that’s not a better solution than, say, using properly maintained and sourced wood.
MF: Your projects like the Dixit Algorizmi garden, which unpacked the work of Uzbek polymath Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwārizmī, explore the ways in which algorithms are used and perceived today. How much do technologies like generative design influence your research?
JG: We’re interested in moving the discourse around technology away from a purely technical field into a sphere of cultural and artistic production, and interrogating what the creative possibilities are. In that sense, the Dixit Algorizmi arose from our interest in the histories of the technologies that we consider to be fundamental to modern culture. The algorithm, which is the biggest technical achievement par excellence, underpinning everything we understand to be Western and modern, is neither Western nor modern – it comes from ninth century Central Asia. It’s partly just fun, a little bit about surprising people and disrupting their assumptions. It’s also reminding ourselves that a lot of the things that we think are new and special about this moment in history, are simply questions that have been dealt with before.